Sonoran Desert Research Center

In cooperation with Northern Arizona University, Department of Biological Sciences

U.S. Geological Survey
Open-File Report 2005-1140
version 1.0

Influence of Riparian Tree Phenology on Lower Colorado River Spring-Migrating Birds: Implications of Flower Cueing

By Laura J. McGrath and Charles van Riper III


photo of small yellow-breasted bird in a tree
Nashville Warbler, photograph by Kristina Ecton

Executive Summary

Neotropical migrant birds make choices about which habitats are most likely to provide successful foraging locations during migration, but little is known about how these birds recognize and process environmental clues that indicate the presence of prey species. Aspects of tree phenology, notably flowering of trees along the lower Colorado River corridor, coincide with the migratory stopovers of leaf-gleaning insectivorous songbirds and may be an important indicator of arthropod prey species availability.

Shifting tree flowering and leaf flush during the spring migration period presents avian insectivores with an assortment of foraging opportunities. During two field seasons at Cibola National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona, we examined riparian tree species to test whether leaf-gleaning insectivorous birds are attracted to the flowering condition of trees in choosing foraging sites. We predicted that flowering trees would host more insect prey resources, would thus show increased visit rates, length of stays and attack ratios of migrant avian insectivores, and that those arthropods would be found in the stomach contents of the birds. Paired trees of honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), displaying heavy and light degrees of flowering were observed to test these predictions. To test whether birds are tracking arthropods directly or are using flowers as a proximate cue, we removed flowers from selected trees and paired these treated trees with neighboring high flowering trees, which served as controls. Avian foraging behavior, avian diets, arthropods, and phenology data were collected at the same time to control for temporal differences in insect availability, plant phenology, and differences in stopover arrivals of birds.

We documented five patterns from this study: 1) Higher abundance and richness of arthropods were found on honey mesquite trees with greater numbers of flowers. 2) Arthropod abundance and richness increased as flowering level increased. 3) The subset of migrant avian insectivores selected for study disproportionately foraged among honey mesquite trees with significantly greater amounts of flower coverage than they did on trees with less than average flower coverage. 4) Paired field experiments demonstrated that migrant avian insectivores more often visited, stayed longer, and had higher attack rates on insect prey in honey mesquite trees with greater numbers of flowers. 5) Diet analyses of selected avian insectivores showed over half of their diet consisted of prey significantly associated with honey mesquite flowering. Combined, these results suggest that honey mesquite flowering condition is an important cue used by avian insectivores that enables birds to quickly find arthropod prey at stop-over locations, while in transit during spring migration

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